Turkey playing with fire in ramping up anti-Israel rhetoric

It is hard to remain unmoved by acts of blatant cynicism. The recent antics of Turkey's "mildly Islamist" Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offer a textbook example.

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Erdogan is tapping into popular sentiment
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Douglas Davis
On 3 October 2011 08:09

It is hard to remain unmoved by acts of blatant cynicism. Not those small, petty gestures of crass stupidity that seek to advance a particular vested interest, but grand acts of faux-statecraft that leave the observer unsure whether to laugh or cry.

The recent antics of Turkey’s “mildly Islamist” Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offer a textbook example.

After expelling Israel’s ambassador to Ankara, severing military ties and ending its strategic co-operation with Jerusalem, Turkey's (non-Arab) Prime Minister flew to a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo. There he presented himself, shiny new credentials intact, as the "cheerleader-in-chief" of the Palestinians.

"We must work hand-in-hand with our Palestinian brothers," Erdogan lectured his fellow Middle East leaders. "It is time to raise the Palestinian flag at the United Nations." International recognition of a Palestinian state was, he declared, an obligation, not an option.

Erdogan also offered support and comfort for the "Arab Spring" movement: "Freedom and democracy and human rights must be a united slogan for the future of our people," he said. "The legitimate demands of the people cannot be repressed with force and in blood."

Some Arab leaders, not least the Jordanian royal family who opposed the Palestinian move at the UN, and others, such as the Saudi royal family who oppose the "Arab Spring", must have quietly choked on their bottled water. Whatever the reason, Erdogan's scheduled appearance before protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square later that day was mysteriously cancelled.

Erdogan's new-found solidarity with the Palestinians was, naturally, harnessed to a rhetorical attack on Israel.

He accused his erstwhile ally of sponsoring "state terrorism" and described the deaths of nine Turks on the Mavi Marmara, which participated in a flotilla that sought to break the blockade of Gaza in May 2010, as a "bloody massacre". It was "grounds for war," he intoned, "but, befitting Turkey's greatness, we have decided to act with patience."

Israel had said it regretted the incident, but refused to apologise for the actions of its soldiers in defending their lives. Erdogan last month dismissed a UN report into the incident, which upheld the legality of Israel's blockade. "It means nothing to us," he said.

Perhaps not, but he might find it difficult to explain why powerful figures in his government support the Islamist Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), a supposed charity, which bought the 15-year-old ferry for over US$1 million when they found they were unable to charter a vessel to challenge the blockade.

In the event, the IHH was presented with the Parliamentary Award of Honour, one of Turkey's highest honours and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said he “saluted and congratulated” the organisation.

Erdogan might find that his belligerent new tone towards Israel does not play well in all circles in Brussels, where he is negotiating Turkey's entry into the European Union.

Elmar Brok, the foreign policy spokesman for the Christian Democratic bloc in the European Parliament, said he was sceptical of Turkey's ability to transform itself into a regional power with a status similar to "earlier with the Ottoman Empire." And he was critical of Erdogan "using the conflict with Israel in order to gain credibility in the region".

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of the right-of-centre Free Democrats in the European Parliament, warned that Erdogan's stridently anti-Israel rhetoric "isn't making any friends in Europe."

Why has Erdogan, whose country is a member of NATO and currently seeking entry to the European Union, made such a dramatic volte-face?

One reason may be that the Turkish economy, running a deficit approaching ten percent of GDP (similar to that of Greece), could be about to explode in his face, while anti-Israel sentiment taps neatly into the popular domestic mood. Friendship with Israel was always limited to Turkey's secular elites, and Erdogan senses fertile soil for his brand of demagoguery in a society that has strongly negative attitudes toward Israel (seventy-seven percent, according to a BBC World Service poll last year).

Another is that Erdogan has ambitions to restore the influence - if not the power - of the old Ottoman Empire, with himself as grand vizier. In other words, he is seizing the moment of maximum political, social and economic dislocation in the region to attempt to gain hegemony of the Arab world. Championing the Palestinian cause and leading the attack on Israel are prerequisites.

The nuclear-hungry Islamist Shi'ite rulers of Iran are unlikely to be amused.

Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil, writing in his country’s influential daily Hurriyet, offered a generous, if sardonic, view of Erdogan's barnstorming visit to Egypt. Addressing himself to an Egyptian audience, he wrote: "We are brothers! Our prime minister is your prime minister. So, please do not hesitate to borrow him - and please do not feel obliged to return him any time soon. After all, Muslims are never greedy and know well to share their jewels."

It would be comforting to believe that political leaders in the Middle East, like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, actually mean what they say, even if the message is hateful.

As it is, the mood of reform has not apparently affected the cynically expedient rhetoric of the region's political classes, who continue peddling the clapped-out conspiratorial myths about Israel and the Palestinians. 

Douglas Davis is a former senior editor of the Jerusalem Post 

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